Going down with the ship
If anyone had wanted to dismantle Nepal’s Communist movement, no one would have been able to do a better job than Prime Minister K P Oli of the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) party. How did that happen? It may be necessary to recap the story so far.
Halfway through his term, after the constitutional ban on voting a government out of office expired last year, Oli’s arch-rival within the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) Pushpa Kamal Dahal started trying to unseat him either from the government or party, and then from both.
Disgruntled by Oli’s moves to sideline them, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhalnath Khanal sided with Dahal. Increasingly isolated, and getting wind of a no-confidence vote, Oli dissolved the Lower House on 20 December. The Supreme Court restored it two months later, but also disbanded the NCP. By itself the UML did not have enough seats to stay in government.
Instead of wooing the Nepal-Khanal faction with positions in the UML central committee and cabinet, Oli drove them even deeper into an opposition alliance of Dahal’s Maoist Centre (MC) and the Nepali Congress.
What followed was the theatrics of the night of 21-22 May, when Oli staked a claim of majority in the House of Representatives that he had himself just dissolved to challenge the bid by the NC-MC led coalition to make Sher Bahadur Deuba prime minister for the fourth time. President Bhandari then obliged by rejecting both claims, and announcing fresh elections for November.
Deuba then led a group of 146 MPs to file a writ in the Supreme Court on 24 May against the second House dissolution and his appointment as prime minister. For good measure, another 29 petitions were also filed against PM Oli and President Bhandari.
For the past fortnight, the Supreme Court had been bogged down in a debate about the composition of the Constitutional Bench. Chief Justice Cholendra SJB Rana was forced to give into pressure to drop two justices that the petitioners felt were tainted by their verdict disbanding the NCP in February, and replace them in the Bench with justices based on seniority.
The Attorney General then raised an objection about two new justices, questioning their impartiality. However, on Wednesday Justice Ishwar Khatiwada said enough is enough, and there was no point wasting any more time on debating the composition of the Bench.
The Court then asked the Prime Minister’s Office, Prime Minister Oli, President Bhandari and her office, as well as Parliament secretariat to show cause for the dissolution of the House within seven days. It also announced a strict 32-hour timetable for eight days of hearings beginning on 23 June, allocating specific dates and durations for lawyers from both sides, as well as for the amicus curie. The interim decision is expected on 4 July.
The Supreme Court has had to step in where the leaders, political parties and their factions, and Parliament could not find a way out of the differences. As a result, K P Oli’s actions first led to the destruction of the NCP, which was formed in 2018 after the election victory of the UML and Maoist Centre. In doing so, Oli took away some veteran war-era Maoist commanders like Ram Bahadur Thapa with him.
With Dahal out of the way, Oli’s sights were then aimed at ousting Nepal. This means the Unified Marxist-Lenisists are no longer unified. But even the Nepal faction is divided between those who want to keep striving for party unity and another that wants to form a new party.
Oli’s power games even split the JSP right down the middle. The Mahanta Thakur-led faction has now joined the government with 10 ministers, while the Upendra Yadav-Baburam Bhattarai group has stayed out. Oli replaced his trusted Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali with the untested Raghubir Mahaseth, someone he had sacked for incompetence just last year as Physical Infrastructure Minister.
The move is probably an attempt to cash in on Mahaseth’s reputed war-chest, appeal to the Madhes, and since he is from the UML, keep a check on deputy prime minister Rajendra Mahato within the Cabinet. Some have even seen the appointment as Oli trying to appease the BJP in India.
The reshuffle highlighted the government’s inability to focus attention on protecting Nepalis with vaccines while the virus is ravaging the countryside, and addressing the loss of jobs during the lockdown. In fact, there have been three health ministers since the pandemic began, and five since Prime Minister Oli took office in 2018.
It now looks likely that the Supreme Court will reinstate the House of Representatives again, and if that happens there will soon be another government.
When K P Oli was in jail during the Panchayat, he was an avid chess player and cell-mate Puranjan Acharya remembers him as being a sore loser. Oli needs to hold on to power, and for that he has Plan B: to try to keep the UML intact so that even if the House is reinstated he can still cobble together a majority.
However, that plan may have been thwarted this week by the Nepal faction rejecting Oli’s olive branch and conditional offer for rapprochement. This leaves things pretty much up in the air till the Supreme Court gives its decision in three weeks.
Some young Turks in the UML have not given up on keeping the UML united, and for this they need to get Oli and Nepal to patch up. The trouble is that the distrust between the two is so deep that they would both rather partner with leaders from another party than their own.
The UML’s Yogesh Bhattarai blames both Oli and Nepal for their inability to reconcile differences: “Comrade K P Oli is not ready to work with Comrade Madhav Nepal and Comrade Jhalnath Khanal from his own party, but is willing to share power with Mahanta Thakur and Rajendra Mahato … and Comrade Nepal is unwilling to work with Comrade K P Oli, but is happy to form a coalition with Sher Bahadur Deuba, Prachanda and Upendra Yadav.”
Bhattarai asks on social media: “Who, why and for what is this thing dragging on? The root of the problem is that the two leaders cannot get along. To save party unity, they need to find common understanding.”
Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).